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Designing Downtown: Amy Lee Finchem

The nonprofit organization COLAB Las Vegas is creating opportunities for local artists to win major public arts projects. Meet the UNLV alumni behind it.
Business & Community  |  Jul 21, 2014  |  By Brian Sodoma

Amy Finchem didn't like what she was seeing. At the height of the Great Recession, local architects and designers were being laid off in droves; meanwhile, development projects that were going forward seemed to go to out-of-state entities.

In 2012, the local designer created COLAB Las Vegas. The nonprofit's goal was to create a greater dialogue about local design through exhibits and lectures, while also using its downtown gallery space to display local designers' work.

COLAB's first exhibit showcased the work of seven local designers was a hit. Titled "Young Guns," it caught the attention of city officials, who requested the seven designers, along with public artist Zak Ostrowski, '07 M.Arch., help with a $2.5 million public art project - the Neon Gateway.

Today, COLAB has worked as a facilitator for the City of Las Vegas, finding designers and artists for the Neon Gateway project near Charleston Boulevard and the I-15, as well as the $500,000 Ogden Underpass public art project, which will make the roadway between downtown and Symphony Park much more pedestrian friendly.

"I didn't want to be one of those people who sits around and complains about the needs in the community. I had something I thought could resolve a problem and I went for it," said Finchem, '09 BS Architecture.

Neon Gateway

The Neon Gateway is part of the state's $1.7 billion I-15 renovation. The goal was to create an instantly recognizable area at the Charleston exits. The original design included yellow undulating stalks on the I-15/Charleston bridge and LED-lit reeds on the banks below the bridge. But the project's scope shifted and a bridge planned for the area was scrapped, requiring a new design.

Emerging from the original group to work on the re-design are Ostrowski; Clemente Cicoria, '03 BS and '07 M.Arch; and Drew Gregory, '03 BS and '06 M.Arch. The three former classmates appreciate one another's sometimes wildly different visions for the space. But they're keeping those ideas close to the vest for now until they present their final three concepts to the city's public works department.

"We're looking to introduce an iconic entity that ultimately distinguishes and differentiates between the Strip and downtown, and creates an identity for the space and the area," said Cicoria.

The group wants to create something as memorable as the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign and perhaps include functional public space. "I miss having some place where you can go eat lunch in the park," Gregory said.

The Underpass, The Future

COLAB closed its public gallery in 2013, but the nonprofit is still very active in the local design community. COLAB collaborated with the city to host a competition among the Neon Gateway team and two other groups to make changes to the Ogden Underpass. The dark, poorly lit path discourages pedestrian use.

The winning team was comprised of longtime Valley architect and UNLV instructor Eric Strain and UNLV alumni Albert Brown, '03 BS Architecture; Glen Curry, '03 BS and '05 M.Arch.; and artist David Ryan, '03 MFA. The makeover involved moving the sidewalks from the outside edge of the underpass to the middle, forming 28-foot wide walkway. The space will also have plenty of LED lighting, greenery, and a lily-pad light display. Construction could start in late fall.

Finchem is still keeping an eye out for more work for local designers and artists, and is even looking beyond Nevada. She submitted a plan for a Seattle project. Although COLAB didn't land the job, she is still encouraged that her proposal was even considered.

For local designers like Gregory, an organization like COLAB is long overdue in Southern Nevada.

"If you look at all the great cities, they have similar organizations that bring lecturers and exhibits; they educate people on design and public art," added Gregory. "If she can continue to find competitions, that would be great. We didn't know about these things before."

Ostrowski hopes more artists learn about the nonprofit as well. "Right now, most artists don't know about COLAB. But the architects do," he said. "This [Neon Gateway] is an art project."